on being an optimistic pessimist

From The Outsider by Colin Wilson:

Tolstoy has found a parable that brings home to the full the Outsider’s attitude to other men: he cites an Eastern fable of a man who clings to a shrub on the side of a pit to escape an enraged beast at the top and a dragon at the bottom. Two mice gnaw on the roots of his shrub. Yet while hanging, waiting for death, he notices some drops of honey on the leaves of the shrub, and reaches out and licks them. This is man, suspended between the possibilities of violent accident death and inevitable natural death, diseases accelerating them, yet still eating, drinking, laughing at Fernandal in the cinema. This is the man who calls the Outsider morbid because he lacks the appetite for honey!"

This, it seems, is as reasonable a similitude for encompassing the “human condition” as any other. To say “I am” is perforce to imply '“I was not”, “I might not have been”, “I may not be”, “I will not be”. The part in the middle therefore must revolve around licking up as much honey as you are able to. There is, after all, no other recourse…and no other reason one can think of in the shadow of the abyss.

So says the optimist.

The pessimist, however, would, no doubt, be more inclined to embrace the metaphor proposed by John Folwes in The Aristos. It revolves aound imagining human existence as a man sitting at a desk. On top of the desk are various telephones. Each telephone represents a potential calamity one might encounter along the cosmological blink of an eye trajectory from dust to dust. For example: death, sickness, poverty, lost love, impotence, missed opportunity, money woes, collapsing career, family crisis, emotional and psychological travail, philosphical despair, a crisis of faith, crime, war, social injustice, political outrage, terrorism, prejudice and discrimination etc etc etc.

Life then basically consist of waiting for the next phone to ring. And hoping it is one of the smaller ones…or the only one.

My point, as always, is that neither the pessimist nor the optimist is ever “right” about this sort of thing. Instead, our reaction to life will always be situated in a particuar world viewed from a particular point of view. Given circumstances dire enough even the most die hard optimist will break; and given circumstances pleasant enough even the most die hard pessimist will succumb to them.

Only the fool [in my opinion] sees this as a philosophical quandary.

This all depends on what words mean, and the order you give to them. How does this apply “down-in-the-world”?

Any response can be justified, so your response is no better than any other.

(…remind you of someone?)

Yes, this is true. Why? Because it revolves around value judgments. The points I raise may be applicable to some but not to others. No one can say objectively, essentially, universally whether another ought to feel optimistic or pessimistic about their own existence. That is beyond the purview [let alone the dictates] of logic.

Unless, of course, it’s not.

But, if that is the case, what is your argument to support it?

What is yours? My argument will depend on what words mean, and the order they’re in. Since all arguments can be equally justified, my argument will be no better than any other. So, why would you want my argument?

Two interesting metaphors.
And that’s about all I have to say.

My argument was encompassed above based entirely on the manner in which I construe the meaning of the words. How could it be otherwise?

But not all arguments can be justified. If you argue that a particular Mary had an abortion and this particular Mary died when she was 6 months old, even “purporting” it to be true will not make it so. And scientists have long confirmed the rationality behind the laws of physics by creating arguments [in the form of equations] that engineers can then use to create technologies the existence of which would not be possible if the arguments [equations] were not rational.

And I want your argument regarding the objective and/or universal truth behind conflicting and contradictory moral prescriptions/proscriptions, because this has fascinated philosophers for centuries. Is it possible we can deduce – can know – the moral duties and obligations of a woman pregnant with an unwanted fetus?

Or, to put it in Kantian terms, suppose you live in a polity where abortion is deemed a capital crime punishable by death. If a woman you love dearly has had an abortion and you know this is it your moral duty and obligation to tell the authorities the truth if they ask you if, in fact, she did have an abortion?

My argument would depend on you being able to differentiate important concepts like knowledge from justification, objective from universal. Mary can be objectively justified in acting in a moral way. (If knowledge means absolute certainty, then you don’t know that you’re sitting at a keyboard reading this right now). Since that’s, practically speaking, absurd—let’s stipulate a weaker definition of “knowledge”. Knowledge is “justified true belief”. So, Mary can know how to act in a moral way.

…Although, my argument depends on what words mean, and what order they’re in. Any argument that changes the order, or the meanings, would be equally rational and justified. So, any argument is as good as any other.

Your argument depends on what words mean, and what order they’re in. That’s why any argument can be as good as yours. Therefore, there’s no reason to think your argument is any better than anyone elses.


Sure, we can go all the way out on the metaphysical limb and argue about whether or not I am merely dreaming now that a demon has invented you dreaming about me sitting in front of a keyboard that is really just being manipulated by Jeff Bridges in the virtual world of Tron.

You got me there, right?

But to know that Mary had an abortion [if, in fact, she did] is not the same sort of knowledge that the deontologists profess to have deduced with respect to knowing whether this either was or was not in accordance with her moral obligation as a rational human being.

And if any behavior is justified as true because someone believes it is true that means every behavior is justified. And it is certainly true that many of those choosing behaviors in conflict will believe their choice is…objective?

Uh, then what? Then you put the engineering manual away and take your argument out on the road.

But this is not necessarily true when the words are anchored to actual behaviors. If I argue that Mary did not have an abortion when in fact she did it doesn’t matter what order you put the words in. She either did or did not have an abortion. Although I suppose one could argue that, from a particular point of view, the word “abortion” means giving birth and the words “did not” mean did.

Let’s go back to this though:

…suppose you live in a polity where abortion is deemed a capital crime punishable by death. If a woman you love dearly has had an abortion and you know this to be true is it your moral duty and obligation to tell the authorities the truth if they ask you if, in fact, she did have an abortion?

Yes it is. Moral facts are not essentially different from physical facts, they’re often just harder to know.

What are moral facts?

I believe people far too often think they either need too be optimistic or pessimistic(which pessimists call realistic). I think thats foolish though, It’s as simple as there are times too be pessimistic and there are times too be optimistic.

The facts that determine how you ought to act.

Okay, what are the moral facts here:

…suppose you live in a polity where abortion is deemed a capital crime punishable by death. If a woman you love dearly has had an abortion and you know this to be true is it your moral duty and obligation to tell the authorities the truth if they ask you if, in fact, she did have an abortion?

Now, the “physical facts” here would not seem to be in dispute.

There either is a polity with a law on the books making abortion a capital crime or there is not. There either is someone who embraces Kant’s moral dictum regarding lying or there is not. This person either tells the authorities the truth about a woman he loves choosing an abortion or he does not.

But what are the facts regarding what he or she ought to do?

List of the moral facts:

  1. abortion is deemed a capital crime.
  2. A woman you love dearly has had an abortion
  3. You know that #2 is true
  4. The authorities might ask you.

A few things to notice: We don’t have enough facts here to make an adequately justified decision. (Btw: Personally, I consider it the epitome of hypocrisy that you always claim decisions must be made “down in the world” and then routinely ask me to solve problems like this one, when you’ve presented so few facts… but nevermind about that…). Remember, according to me, morality is objective—not necessarily universalizable. So anyways…

We can add to the list of moral facts by adding some more facts that we derive from human nature and rational derivation:

  1. People generally (including you and Mary) do not like to suffer pain.
  2. Being separated from Mary (who would be incarcerated) will cause you pain.
  3. Being in jail will cause Mary pain (suffering)
  4. Causing other people pain harms our conscience, and causes us psychological pain.
  5. Mary’s being incarcerated will not likely cause other people pain.

Let’s stop for a moment, here. I could go on, for a long time. Some of these facts may be false, then we’ll just have to change our list. Many of these facts will start to combine and point in a direction that would be better than some other directions. Many of these facts, then, become reasons to act in one way rather than another. I’ve employed a technique called “using a moral theory” to help me pull out the relevant facts of the situation. It’s the technique I told you about before. There are other theories, and in rare cases the may pull out conflicting facts. Making moral decisions is often harder than weighing scientific evidence—but it’s also often much more important.

So, this is how moral decision making works…

Take home lesson for you:

  1. Moral facts are just like any other facts. There’s really only one kind of “fact”—the ‘fact’ that is a fact.

And what is your moral decision based on your moral facts?

I think facts 2, 3, 5 - 9, all point towards not telling the authorities, if they ask you.

That wasn’t a hard decision, because we only have 9 facts. Fact #4 is irrelevant. And fact #1 is outweighed by all the rest, in the absence of moral facts.

You forgot a very important ‘fact’. If the authorities find out that you were sheltering Mary then they will punish you, Mary and quite possibly your family. There are in fact lots of ‘facts’ which complicate the decision.

Evidently, there is no difference between a moral fact and an empirical, or scientific fact. That abortion is against the law, in the example, is an empirical fact. It’s verifiable by the most ordinary of means - you just have to look up the law. That the woman has had an abortion is the same kind of fact.

I thought that moral facts were such that “A is wrong” or “A is right”.

Perhaps we’re just not on the same (Wiki) page.

No shit. I was only given a few, and you’re free to make up and add whichever ones you want. But let’s stop at #10—so that this doesn’t get complex. Remember, the goal was to explain to you some very simple points. Not solve an imaginary abortion case. (And plus, nobody ever said doing morality was easy).

So, you want to add another fact…

If your fact is right, we might have to look at the probabilities/likelihood/chances, and weigh them against which outcome each person desires, for one. We’ll be adding more facts by doing that. That’s what I suggest. But then again, I didn’t put much thought into what you said.

“Action A is wrong” is the outcome of a decision. You make moral decisions by looking at facts—empirical facts, scientific facts, moral facts, physical facts, happy facts, fat fucking facts—every fucking kind of fact. Moral decisions are decisions about what you ought to do. If it helps you understand, why don’t you just remove the word in front of “------- fact”, and maybe then it’ll get through your fucking head, since that seems to be confusing you. These facts become “reasons for acting”. …Wait, I might have lost you… I mean ANY kind of fucking fact can be a “reason” for acting.

If there’s a hole right in front of me, it is also “reason” to walk somewhere else.

If chopping your fucking face apart will cause you suffering, it is also a “reason” not to do it.